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Student government must not punt on addressing prison labor

| Thursday, September 17, 2020

The job of the Notre Dame student senate, as stated in Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Undergraduate Student Body of the University of Notre Dame du Lac, is to “formulate and advance the position of the undergraduate student body on all issues concerning campus life.” In other words, the student senate is the group through which the undergraduate student body comes together not simply to discuss that which affects our lives at Notre Dame, but also to formulate where we stand on issues that arise.

Last week, the senate voted on a non-binding resolution entitled, “A Resolution to Commit to Anti-Racist Action at Notre Dame.” In affirming the text of the resolution, the senate, rather than committing to any new action, simply adopted the position that Notre Dame should largely continue to do what it has already been doing. The senate called upon Notre Dame to continue to “engage in constructive dialogue” with student leaders in the Black Student Association, Notre Dame Socially Responsible Investing and the Notre Dame Strike for Black Lives, regarding the goals of those groups. Rather than taking a firm stance on specific issues of racial injustice that pertain to our campus community, however, the senate simply voted to encourage administrators to continue to talk with students. We believe that the senate could have and should have taken a stronger stance.

The student senate is fully within its power to take a meaningful moral stand on these issues. Passing a non-binding resolution that endorses specific racial justice initiatives would ultimately provide a much clearer picture of what the student body, writ large, desires the Notre Dame administration do. In this case, however, the student senate can do more than simply pass nonbinding resolutions that offer support towards goals of racial and social justice — the student senate can enact binding action that would align with these goals.

The Black Student Association and the leaders Notre Dame Socially Responsible Investing have each written in Instagram posts that investments in private prisons are “contrary to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and mission” and that the corporations that operate private prisons “blatantly violate human rights.”

These claims could not be more true. Just as Pope Leo XIII writes in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, “[i]f through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” Indeed, the Church teaches that “[a] just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice,” and that “[e]veryone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.” Workers, therefore, have a natural right to just wages that allow them to provide for themselves and those who depend on them.

The conditions faced by incarcerated workers shock the conscience. The lack of legal protections for incarcerated workers and the inability of these workers to collectively bargain with their employer for higher wages have led to sub-dollar effective hourly wages being paid in prisons across the United States. Public reporting indicates that certain private prisons, including at least one operated by GEO group, have been “plagued by medical neglect.” And, while the state has an obligation to protect its citizens from crime, its system of criminal justice cannot justly strip away their natural rights just because they have committed crimes. After all, as Pope Leo XIII writes, “the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them.”

The student union constitution is not entirely silent on the rights of workers; Article XVIII, Section 4(e) prohibits the use of “sweatshops” in the manufacturing of The Shirt. However, the student union constitution only goes that far; the document does not acknowledge the rights of workers unless they are involved in the manufacturing of that particular piece of clothing. Nothing is said about those who endure forced labor in any other field of work, including the disproportionately Black and Brown incarcerated population whose labor is unjustly exploited by private prisons. Further, while there exist limits in the student union constitution on what sorts of expenses that student groups can make, existing limits do not prohibit the use of student funds to purchase goods produced through the exploitation of forced labor or prison labor. The student union constitution also does not prohibit the several endowments established therein from making investments in companies that profit off of forced labor and prison labor.

The constitution grants the student senate the power to “establish the fiscal policies of the Student Union and supervise the proper implementation of these policies.” A binding senate order has been drafted in order to ensure that student union organizations, and groups that receive funding from the student union, divest from companies that use prison labor and/or forced labor in order to obtain profit. It’s about time that the senate adopts policies that would address these human rights issues and require groups that use student funds to be socially responsible.

Alas, this Thursday, the senate will not see this order for debate. Why? Because student body vice president Sarah Galbenski, who serves as the ex officio chair of the student senate, is refusing to allow the senate to hear this piece of legislation then.

This is deeply frustrating for a number of reasons.

First, this delay does not appear to be warranted by the student union constitution. Article III, Section 4(g) of the student union constitution grants all senators the “right of agenda.” Senators are thereby granted their rights to introduce legislation. Article III, Section I.1(a) of the bylaws of the student senate specify that a member must provide the chair with all materials relevant to any piece of proposed legislation “sufficiently before” the deadline for the agenda for an upcoming meeting to be sent out, which is 48 hours prior to the start of such a meeting. Since the chair received this piece of legislation over one day before the agenda needed to be sent out, she certainly had the time to insert one additional line on the agenda to include the legislation and schedule it for debate.

Secondly, despite repeated requests that this piece of legislation be included on the agenda, because she maintains that she has a right “to set the agenda in alignment with what constitutes efficient and effective operation of the senate in [her] judgement,” she has the ability to pick and choose what sorts of legislation should be voted on. This holding would allow for the student body vice [resident to simply deny debate time to any bill that she does not support, which fundamentally undermines the ability of the senate to be a free and open forum through which students can advance the position of the undergraduate student body on issues relevant to campus life.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the legislation which she has chosen to prioritize does not appear to carry the same moral weight. In this case, her priorities are simple: the legislation that she wishes to discuss include suspending uncontested first-year class council elections, changing the “executive programming board” into the “executive committee” and making some additional money available for use by student government groups and student union special interest organizations. Simply put, none of these priorities carry the moral weight or urgency associated with ensuring that money collected from students in a mandatory fee is not spent in a socially irresponsible manner nor invested into companies that directly profit from human rights abuses.

If student government is to truly execute on its commitment to anti-racism by “actively working towards a world of justice and peace,” then student government officials must not continue to delay legislation that tackles issues of human rights and social justice. Instead, student government must face the tough issues that carry the most moral weight head-on, and the student senate must be allowed to take a firm moral stand.

Sincerely,

 

Michael Dugan

senior, Dillon Hall senator

John Sayut

junior, Dillon Hall president

Patrick Davis

sophomore, Dillon Hall vice president

Thomas Peterson

sophomore, Dillon Hall multicultural commissioner

Andrew Linares

freshman, Dillon Hall gender relations commissioner

Sept. 16

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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